When a restaurant becomes a neighborhood mainstay, the challenge is no longer how to bring people in the door but how to keep them coming in — giving them what they love, but still exciting them. At a place like Chino Latino in Uptown, the challenge is even greater because the menu itself is focused on experimentation, which creates high expectations.
Amid the ever-changing cast of Uptown restaurants, the sometimes-incendiary establishment has carved out a firm identity for itself. But that hasn’t stopped executive chef Tyge Nelson, executive consulting chef Tim McKee, and their team from revamping the menu in an attempt to maintain some of that intrigue — and in doing so, making the biggest menu adjustment in the 15 years the restaurant has been open, according to the parent company Parasole’s website.
Twenty new dishes have been added to the menu thus far, and despite the media hype, our waitress could not confirm which dishes were new but only that the menu had been changed recently. Ever-popular tiki drinks were added, and new food items include different kinds of meats and additional toppings for Tio Pepe’s Taco Hole. And while we knew it only for its novelty, Cuy (guinea pig) is no longer on the menu, leaving a hole in the “72 Hour Notice” section.
While there are more new offerings to come, the current results are uneven, largely because the restaurant’s forte, happy hour, was mostly forgotten in the update. Chino’s happy hour has been a perennial late-night destination for suburban high schoolers (who enjoy scarfing cheap eats in a clublike environment) and bachelorettes fueling up on their way to or from Williams Pub and Peanut Bar.
Chino’s after-work happy hour starts earlier and goes later than most (4:30 to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; 4:30-midnight, Sunday and Monday). The same deals are available during an additional late-night happy hour (Thursday through Saturday 10 p.m.-midnight). Deals include classic cocktails, local craft beers (now with Sociable Cider Werks for $5), and a smattering of sushi and other “Hot Zone” items at good prices. The happy hour shows the hard-working skill of the bartenders and wait staff, as they hustle to cover the lounge and bar area.
Several years ago Chino’s happy hour scene felt novel and exciting; these days, perhaps due to an evolving cocktail scene in the area, it can feel comfortable, safe, or even staid. The happy hour highlights haven’t changed: a standard Moscow Mule (sans copper mug), the rudely-named Donkey Punch, and a range of mojitos with assorted flavor shot options. Avoid the Hot Tub cocktail (above) — unless you want to taste college again — despite how exciting the dry ice looks as it bubbles to the surface around the plastic mermaid.
The Shanghai Wings are a crowd favorite; a pound of sticky and just-right spicy morsels cost $7. Skip the Poblano Fundido ($6) because for $10 more you can get the much larger Queso Fundido from the “Vegetables (Mostly)” section of the main menu. It includes chorizo and can function as your entire meal.
Most of the items in the expanded “Sushi, Sashmi, Raw” section of the menu are new, according to our bartender, and many of the offerings are sushi rolls (with crazy names), most of which incorporate jalapeño or other spicy elements, in some cases becoming too complicated and masking the flavor of the fish.
The raw (or almost so) items include Albacore Crudo ($15), Peruvian Ceviche (made with snapper, $15), and Tuna Tataki (lightly seared ahi, $12). Unable to pick just one, we opted for the raw sampler ($20). It included a few pieces of each item, but all were slightly disappointing. The ceviche lacked the characteristic citrus tartness, and the albacore crudo tasted more watery than spicy. The tuna tataki was the best of the three, with radishes and shiso-cilantro dressing accenting the natural earthiness of the fish.
The Filipino Seafood Paella, another new menu item (that looks oddly like the Pinoy Paella from a past iteration of the menu, minus the chorizo and chicken), was large and laced with many mussels and shrimp. It looked beautiful, but for $38 we expected a bounty of fresh seafood — the mahi mahi and calamari were sparse. Additionally, the saffron-annatto stewed rice tasted more like classic Chinese-restaurant fried rice, one-dimensional and slightly greasy; we wished we had ordered the Molcajete ($39) instead, which offered four kinds of meat and the fixings to transform them into tacos.
The highlight of the meal was the Pork Belly Steamed Buns ($15). The hunk of slow-cooked pork belly was the perfect size for the bun, unlike the version at some other restaurants, where there is more doughy goodness than tasty meat. These buns compete with the best of them (including Masu’s), and the sweet-and- sour elements of the hoisin sauce and kewpie mayo completed the package to make a delicious snack. Perhaps Chino should consider putting these on the happy hour menu.
As when choosing to drink a Bud Light versus a craft beer on Lake Minnetonka, there’s a time for Chino Latino: It’s a good place to take your aunt from out of town, who will marvel at how funky it feels as you revel in the cool-feeling deep, thumping bass in the dark basement. You’ll order Chino Latino’s take on Orange Chicken (Belafonte’s Banana Boat Chicken), and you’ll feel full and happy. You will probably consider trying one of the new menu items but decide against it, thinking “why deviate from the norm when you know what you like and why you came?”
World street food in Uptown
2916 Hennepin Ave S
Minneapolis, MN 55408
OWNER / CHEF: Parasole Restaurants / Tyge Nelson
Sun-Thu 4:30 p.m.-1 a.m., Fri-Sat 4:30 p.m.-2 a.m.
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Ask
ENTREE RANGE: $20-$39
PARKING: Valet, some metered street parking, limited pay parking lots